A few years ago, I practically camped out at a book store in order to get the new Thomas Harris novel; Hannibal. I'd waited 10 years to find out what further exploits Clarice and Lecter would have and I had never been disappointed by a Thomas Harris novel yet. I picked up the book and read it in one sitting. At first I thought it was just me and that it would pick up and get better. I plodded along with doubt and worry. Then I started to feel bored, then resentful, then angry; very, very angry. I felt like I had wasted 10 years of my life waiting for something that turned out to be pure, unadulterated garbage. The movie and its story, thankfully, were saved by David Mamet, but the bitterness of the whole affair still irks me to this day. That, my friends, was quantity (in this case: one crappy, sellout of a book) over quality (or any semblance thereof).
Well, if we believe everything we read, we've also all been waiting 10 year with baited breath for 3D Realms, 2K Games and Human Head Studios to finally release Prey. In truth however, the 360 titles are so sparse and far and few between that any game being released (expect for Dynasty Warriors 5 of course) will be met with high anticipation. To make sure we know though that Prey is in a class of its own, a Collector's Edition or Limited Edition is drummed up to ensure people take note of the landmark title soon to be bestowed upon us. In the end, Prey is a quality First Person Shooter with solid gameplay, a robust engine behind it, a great score and a premise that could have been great. But Prey goes for the opposite of that famed Harris novel and gives us quality over quantity. And while many a gamer will argue that this could never be a bad thing, Prey is really not enough of a game to ever recommend beyond a rental. Perhaps the greatest rental of all times, but simply not worth the full price being asked.
Prey tells the story of Tommy, a Cherokee Indian, who wants to turn his back on his heritage (yet he still dresses the part - I would've changed my clothes to make a point) and leave the reservation. Trouble is, his girlfriend Jen still lives there and its obvious Tommy and Jen have severe communication issues. He's never told her that he loves and she's never admitted to being a stand-in for early Nelly Furtado videos. There's also an ominous speaking grandfather sprouting dribble in there too, but none of this really matters because before long, the gang has been sucked up into an alien spacecraft, grandpa bites the big one, Jen gets captured (and oddly enough - not killed) and Tommy must trudge through the entire ship looking for Jen and a way off. And if you're truly expecting anything else from the story, you'll wait a long time. Besides the initial set-up in the bar (which is overly long but possibly the best level in the game anyway) and a few people you meet half-way through, the story is non-existent and boring. Yes, there's a build up near the end for the sake of closure (which is satisfying) but it's truly too little too late by this time.
What will keep you playing is really the resolve to see if the game ever evolves into something other than a standard corridor trek aboard an alien spaceship (which it doesn't) or if it's really as short as everyone claims it is (which it is). A few puzzles entertain along the way, but they feel so out of place and forced that many will just get annoyed by them. My advice to you; when you get really stuck, your best bets are always to either look up or use the Spirit Walk ability.
Prey is, for all intent and purpose, a standard, run-of-the-mill, by-the-numbers FPS all wrapped up in some much touted gameplay innovations. Truth be told, while there are a few neat additions here to the genre, they are never used as well as they could be and before long they start to feel like gimmicks instead of the natural trappings of the gameplay itself.
The most talked about innovation is the ability to defy gravity and wall walk. Yes, it's nice the first time it happens (you literally walk up a wall using a special ramp and before long you're inverted) and yes, you start to wonder how physics are being handled (if I shoot an enemy, will his body fall up or down?) but this ability is not inherent to Tommy and it must be activated in very, very specific instances; wherever the game forces you to use them. Yes, it's trippy and cool, but it gets old very quickly when it becomes obvious that it serves no purpose other then to look trippy. Since each level is strictly a point A to point B linear venture, there's never the opportunity to use the walls of ceilings to sneak up on enemies (something which can be done in multiplayer games thankfully). And make no mistake about it, Prey is on rails; when you see a wall ramp, you'll need to use it, when you see a vehicle spawn point, you'll need it. This would perhaps be fine if every level didn't look like the last one, didn't play like the last one and wasn't as boring as the last one. You spend the entire game (except for the first level) on-board a spherical ship where the same textures are reused over and over, the same enemies jump out of nowhere like clockwork and the dark, brooding atmosphere serves no purpose whatsoever because light is never a factor and dying is never possibility.
A lot has also been made about the portals which warp you from place to place on each level. Yes, we've have never, ever, ever seen this before. Sure they look different and nice and all, but these are just glorified doors. They just create the illusion of something wonderful happening when they just continue the level in a straight and linear fashion. A lot more should be made of the gravity hubs that, when shot at, redefine where your center of gravity is. This is neat (and a little nauseating) but is always used as part of a forced puzzle and becomes annoying quickly. Plus, while this gravity seems to affect certain objects in rooms, many enemies never seem affected by it which is disturbing.
For those who love their alien weaponry, Prey does feature some pretty clever organic-alien-hybrid technology. While these will basically do what other guns have always done in FPS, they are fun to look at, animated quite well and inventive. The only downfall is that there really aren't enough guns to stand up and cheer about, but everyone should be pleased.
The other feature that is new to Prey is the Death Walk. This simply means that when Tommy's health meter reaches zero, his body travels to the astral planes where he'll have a few seconds to shoot red wraiths (for added health) and blue wraiths (for added spirit power). Then, Tommy is gingerly returned to his body to continue on as if nothing had happened. Yes, there is no game over in Prey, no dying and no real challenge whatsoever. So when you face a horde of enemies (which isn't often) or even a boss character (which is ever less often), just sit back, take all day and with all the grace and efficiency of a 90 year old basketball star basking in the warmth of a lovely summer day, dispatch your foes without ever worrying about dying. This ruins any sense of danger the game could've had and makes health management an exercise in futility. Even on the hardest difficulty setting (which is only slightly harder and unfortunately has to be unlocked), you will never find yourself gripped with panic at the thought of challenge interfering with you and your extra achievement points.
What Prey doesn't accomplish as a traditional FPS it attempts to make up for with cleverly thrown in puzzles. The basis of most of these puzzles is Tommy's ability to leave his body and travel in spirit form. This allows him to hit switches, cross force field covered doors, and spy on women trying on lingerie at Victoria's Secret (not). What this means is that, like Ico, you often find yourself having to get yourself (the other one!) to a location that you yourself (the same other one) can't get to without crossing through a door with yourself (the first one now) and hitting a switch that will cause a platform to move yourself (second one) over to where you (first one) are. It's fun the first few times, but the puzzles are repetitive and soon, you'll start to dread them. Also, a small note: If I was the alien leader in charge of things (including my super-duper state of the art space-sphere ship) I would fire the architects that don't streamline the inside of my ship to allow my employees (even if they are ugly gun-totting grunts who can't hit the broadside of a barn from three feet away) easier access to various to and fro all areas in case of emergencies or fire. As it is, the puzzles (while entertaining) seem forced because they would never exist in the context that they're in.
Prey is a short game. There, I said it. If you've played the demo, you will have seen the first 6 levels (out of 22) and experienced everything that Prey has to offer. The bar scene, while long, is the best part of the game and even if you try to get through Prey at a snail's pace, you'll finish it easily within 7 hours. Yes, this means that if you start to divide the numbers (10 years, 22 levels, 7 hours) you'll get some very odd figures. The achievements are easy to get, you'll even get some for sitting through glorified cutscenes (which also count as levels) and you'll likely be able to finish the game in one sitting (or 2 to 3 if you get motion sickness). If you look past the ranting and nit-picking, Prey is, as previously mentioned a good, solid game. The first levels are so much fun (puzzles, abilities and all) that when you start to feel like you're playing the same levels over and over, it's a little disheartening. Also, when you realize that the mother ship is all you're likely too see for the entirety of the game (I so wanted to get back to earth with my new powers) you'll feel a little short-changed. For what its worth, those making it to the end will find much exciting gameplay in the last few levels, as well as a story take shape and an ending that, unlike Halo 2's, provides a satisfying sense of closure even though a sequel is inevitable. Also, as an aside, I didn't particularly like Tommy as a character since I kept thinking he could put his whole "leaving the reservation/turning his back on his heritage" attitude aside for just a few hours - long enough to save the Jen and the world. A hero that whines is just plain annoying, and one that refuses to learn all his cool powers is even worse. And does anyone actually believe that a whiny middle-aged man who's just now finding out his powers (against his will for the most part) could take on an entire alien race a la Master Chief? Didn't think so either!
After the single player campaign is over, you'll likely spend all your time in the online portion of Prey. Unfortunately, there are only two modes of play: deathmatch and team deathmatch and both have proved to be full of lag and annoying munchkins. Isn't this a Mature rated game? Luckily these problems are easily fixed and more modes can hopefully be added through Live. For the most part, if you enjoy deathmatching in Unreal or Doom or Quake, Prey's wall walk ability will change the pace of what you've come to know enough to make it enjoyable. For those weaned off of Battlefield-type gameplay, Prey's online modes will likely leave you in the cold.
Graphically, Prey uses a modified Doom 3 engine which seems to always elicit dark, shadowy environments. In Prey, the engine seems to be running at its full potential and it's an awfully smooth piece of code to look at. The textures are shiny, the effects nice and the characters, for the most part, incredibly detailed and realistic. The only issues arise from the fact that apart from a few levels (the bar level, the confusing underwater hover-craft level and the confusing hover-plane level) the textures keep getting repeated. Every level starts to look the same. Every corridor identical. You'll have practically seen everything that Prey has to throw at you by the end of the demo. But take heart that, even though its dark and dreary and repetitive (what kind of Debby-Downer designs alien spaceships to always so dull anyway) the game is robust and plays exceptionally smooth, even during cutscenes when it seems that a hundred things are happening at once (and you still have control of the camera).
In the audio department, Prey features an amazing score that may seem overwhelmed and overshadowed by the other sound effects, but which easily sets the mood for the entire game. The sound effects are all quite satisfying and the positional audio is well handled. The voice acting sometimes features grating lines, is professionally done and feels authentic.
In the end, for me, Prey is a game that was hyped for certain features that it simply failed to deliver on. While an excellent rental, I would feel cheated if I paid full price for a game that I would more likely than not, stop playing after 7 hours. A co-op mode would have been wonderful, a more fleshed out story-line, additional levels that didn't take place in dark corridors that herded you from A to B without fail, more multiplayer options; these are all things that should be expected of games being released on next-generation consoles. The simple act of making them pretty and smooth stops cutting it after a while and even the old quality over quantity adage fails to make an impression. Unfortunately, Prey simply fails to compete with every other titles of its ilk even though it showed so much potential early on.